Publisher: Amulet Books
Expected Publication Date: April 1, 2012
“Some people won’t believe any of this story. You might be one of them. But every single word is true. Tony DiMarco does catch a murderer, solve a mystery, and find a treasure—all in the first few days after he moves, unexpectedly, to 13 Hangmen’s Court in Boston. The fact that he also turns thirteen at the same time is not a coincidence.”
So begins the story of Tony and his friends—five 13-year-old boys, all of whom are living in the same house in the same attic bedroom but at different times in history! None are ghosts, all are flesh and blood, and somehow all have come together in the attic room, visible only to one another. And all are somehow linked to a murder, a mystery, and a treasure.
Had I been forced to review 13 Hangmen after the first third of the book, it would have been terrible. Corriveau tells the reader EVERYTHING. Nothing is shown, nothing is left up to the reader, the characters, setting, and plot all feel stilted, and it was just boring. The most exciting thing going on was the continuous (and often unbelievable) fight between Tony and his mom about his weight loss. However, when it picks up it really picks up.
Corriveau has a fascinating idea of history, and I love what he has done with it. Through a chain of thirteen year old boys who know each other - each meeting the one before him when he is thirteen and the one after him when he is an older man - Corriveau manages to tell the ethnically and culturally rich history of the United States. He does so in snapshots of great events while still showing that, though we mostly remember special dates, history is continuous. We are not isolated from history but a part of it. I won't lie, I had some serious problems with the way he mixed fact and fiction (and science and pseudoscience, for that matter) so seamlessly that they were at times indistinguishable. But, wow, he made history exciting! Once we got rolling on the mystery, I really couldn't wait to find out who the next boy would be or what he would contribute to the, well, history lesson, for lack of a better word. And, much to my peace of mind, Corriveau cleans up the fact/fiction melding at the end. (Not that I wouldn't trust middle grade readers to immediately fact check. Ahem.) Also, I just really wish he wouldn't have perpetuated some persistent myths. Corriveau adds his voice to that of Longfellow in muddying Revere's place in history. Obviously, the exciting exaggerations are a lot easier to remember - we have adults, who really ought to know better, still thinking Revere rode up and down the street ringing a bell!
There were some moments in 13 Hangmen that were really trite such as a villainous tell-all monologue a la Murder She Wrote. By the time we got there I was really hoping for better. Also, Sarah has violet eyes, really? (Can we just clear this one up now? Unless your character is albino, it is biologically impossible for her to have violet eyes. Elizabeth Taylor didn't even have violet eyes - she had deep blue eyes that she played up with cosmetics, lighting, and wardrobe. Okay, now we've all got this, stop with the violet eyes already!) I also felt that Angey's assistance to and subsequent friendship with Tony later in the book felt very contrived; it just didn't fit with his character, and I was shown no character growth to account for this change. Plus, a conveniently left behind Ouija board? Again, a plot device that kept the story moving but required suspension of disbelief on my part. Also, the mystery itself was a little predictable - but I'm a twenty-eight year old woman who enjoys reading mysteries. I imagine a middle grade reader new to the genre might not find these things quite as implausible, transparent, or predictable as I do.
Overall, 13 Hangmen was fun, interesting, and made me think about some things I know in a new way. (As a student of Geography, I have learned about the rotation of ethnic groups within a neighborhood throughout generations, but I have never really thought about the neighborhood itself as a sort of time capsule as Corriveau does.) I also love the way the boys are linked by objects that they pass on to each other. (I do feel most connected to my grandmother-the-young-mother when wearing her apron, canning or cooking for my children. It is a time travel of sorts that connects us - doing the same thing at the same 'time' of live with the same object.) Corriveau was absolutely at his best when recounting history, or placing the boys within historical settings and events. His handling of Jack as a boy and "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald were some of the most convincing bits of writing in the book. He manages to write about American history in a compellingly patriotic voice without finding the need to white-wash it - in any sense of the word. He holds no punches when describing the realities that a young African American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, etc., etc., etc. 13 year old boy would face at different points in history; and he acknowledges the very great contributions that each of these communities made to America. Plus, he pulls all that off without appearing nationalistic or nostalgic - a pretty impressive feat. (Truthfully, I would really like to see Corriveau turn his hand to some non-fiction histories or biographies for middle graders.)
13 Hangmen didn't wow me, but I enjoyed it - and I think that nine or ten year old me (she who hid under her blanket with a flashlight and Nancy Drew or Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators) would have enjoyed it even more - if she made it past the first third of the book, that is.
ARC provided thanks to Amulet Books.
Review also appears on Goodreads